Before the lockdown
We first heard about coronavirus in early January. We began to take serious notice on 23rd January when the Chinese government locked down Wuhan province. As the first cases were identified in the UK, we began to seriously think about the implications of a lockdown on the UK domestic cleaning sector. We have hundreds of independent cleaners using our platform. Would home cleaners be able to go to work? Would cleaners be able to support themselves?
House cleaners permitted to work during lockdown
We were expecting some form of lockdown before Boris Johnson made his announcement on 23rd March 2020. After the announcement, we read and reread the rules and government guidance.
There was no specific guidance on working in people’s homes. The government rules said that you could leave home if you could not work from home and the Health Secretary advised that those who cannot work from home should carry on going to work and practice social distancing. Although not explicit, it seemed that house cleaners could work during lockdown. It was not until 1st May that the government gave specific guidance that cleaners are permitted to work in homes.
Our main priority is to keep both customers and cleaners safe. In line with the spirit and objectives of the lockdown, we recommended that all sessions be cancelled unless they were absolutely necessary. We recognised that customers would not want people coming into their homes unless it was essential.
Impact of the lockdown on bookings
New bookings completely dried up and the majority of current bookings were paused or cancelled. In the first week of the lockdown, from 24 March to 31 March, gross volume through our platform fell by 44% compared to prior week. In the following week, gross volume fell by a further 19%. Gross volume for April 2020 was down 68% on prior year.
Some bookings did continue. A number of customers have special requirements, such as disabilities or childcare needs. These sessions continued with extra safety measures. As public transport was reserved for essential workers, cleaners often went to customers on foot.
Although the lockdown was due to be reviewed in three weeks’ time, it seemed unlikely that life would go back to normal soon. It was clear that the financial impact on cleaners would be immediate, substantial and prolonged.
Financial impact on house cleaners
We were concerned that cleaners would struggle to cope with the financial impact of the lockdown. We made some calls. The conversations confirmed our fears.
One cleaner, Nelly commented:
“I was not prepared for the lockdown. Like the rest of the self-employed I don't have any work now. I have been on Universal Credit for about a year and was working a limited number of hours as a cleaner to get the extra money to live on. Now my earnings are down to £22 per week.”
It was not just the lack of work which had become an issue.
“I normally shop at Lidl and buy yellow label marked-down food. Because of the panic buying there is much less marked-down food so I have to pay full price. This has made a big difference. I am now struggling to buy food. I have been hit hard and I don't know what I am going to do. It is a strain.”
Another cleaner, Vanya highlighted the impact of the virus on her earnings.
“I lost 10 customers because of the virus which represents 70-80% of my total customer base. With the lower income, I had to prioritise basic necessities such as food and toiletries. I wasn't able to pay my rent for the past 3 weeks but my landlord understands the situation. I feel alone and the government didn't do much to help me. I have applied for Universal Credit and I am currently waiting for an answer.”
Some cleaners, such as Maria Helena were fortunate to have generous customers.
“I lost a few customers. However, some of my customers have asked me not to go but have agreed to pay for the sessions. I am a bit tight at the moment. I am OK with rent and bills but I am burning through savings.”
Most cleaners are self-employed and ineligible for the furlough scheme. Payments from the self-employment scheme were not made until late May and many cleaners were not eligible for them anyway. We gave advice on Universal Credit and other government support. However, applications take time to process and the financial crunch facing cleaners was more immediate.
The generosity of customers
To bridge the gap, we appealed to customers to pay for part or all of cleaning sessions that were not taking place. For around 15% of total pre-lockdown bookings, customers continued to pay their cleaners for sessions that were not taking place.
In addition, many customers generously gave tips to their cleaners to help them through this difficult time. Some tips were as much as £60 for a single session. If it were not for the generosity of customers, many cleaners would have struggled even more to make ends meet.
Demand for domestic cleaning slowly returning
On Sunday 10th May the prime minister outlined his "roadmap" to bring the country out of lockdown. The government started to encourage certain sectors to return to work and provided guidance on making workplaces Covid-secure.
In the second half of May, we saw an uptick in the number of new bookings as some people went back to work. There was a demand to get homes back to normal. We saw an 81% increase in new bookings for the second half of the month over the first half.
We expect new bookings to continue to increase in June as children start going back to school. However, we are not expecting a V-shaped rebound. There are headwinds impacting the demand-side.
Financial impact of the lockdown on customers
The UK economy is forecast to fall by 35% in the second quarter of 2020. Many sectors have shut down and it is expected that many businesses will not survive the lockdown and social distancing. We are already seeing the impact on demand for house cleaning.
We surveyed customers that had cancelled or paused their bookings because of Covid-19. We found that 5% of respondents would not be rebooking because of a change in financial circumstances. We expect this percentage to rise as the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak creates more uncertainty in personal finances.
Domestic cleaning businesses and their customers and cleaners have all suffered during the lockdown. Cleaners have been hit hard and many have struggled financially.
Whilst customers continue to return in greater numbers, the financial impact of the lockdown on customers is likely to suppress demand for home cleaning services in 2020. A second wave of the virus and further lockdown restrictions would reverse the recovery. It may be a long time before the sector fully recovers. Inefficient cleaning agencies will not survive the downturn.